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Council Tax

Volume 478: debated on Wednesday 9 July 2008

Before we start the debate, it may help if I offer the House guidance on the scope of debate on the order. The order applies to Lincolnshire police authority. The authority was originally considered for capping, along with six other police authorities and Portsmouth city council. The debate may cover the position of Lincolnshire police authority and refer to the fact that the other seven authorities are not to be capped, but it would not be in order to focus exclusively on those authorities that are not being capped, as they are not covered by the order. I hope that that is helpful to the House.

I beg to move,

That the draft Council Tax Limitation (Maximum Amounts) (England) Order 2008, which was laid before this House on 26th June, be approved.

The order will be made under section 52F(4) of the Local Government Finance Act 1992. As you have said, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it caps the rise in council tax levied by Lincolnshire police authority this year. It is the only one of our decisions on eight designated authorities that requires parliamentary action at this stage, and that decision is therefore the focus of our debate this afternoon. Subject to the House’s approval, the order will be made, and I will issue a notice to the Lincolnshire authority about its maximum 2008-09 budget requirement—in other words, its cap. The authority will then have to recalculate its budget so that it is at or below that maximum, and recalculate its precept on the council tax. It will then have to arrange for the district councils, as billing authorities, to send out revised council tax bills for the current year.

In December and February, I said in statements to the House on the formula grant distribution for 2008-09 that keeping council tax under control remains a high priority for the Government. I said that we expected the average council tax increase in England to be substantially below 5 per cent. this year. I also said that we would not hesitate to use our reserve council tax capping powers as necessary to protect council tax payers from excessive council tax increases. No authority could have been unclear about our intent.

Most authorities recognised the public concern about council tax levels, particularly at this time, when all households are under pressure. Some 98 per cent. of authorities did not set excessive increases; two thirds set increases below 4.1 per cent.; one in six set increases below 2.5 per cent. this year; and a further 21 authorities either did not increase council tax or reduced it. That means that this year there has been the lowest average increase in council tax for 14 years at just 4 per cent. Alongside that, by 2010-11, central Government grant for local government will have increased by 45 per cent. above inflation, and it has consistently remained above inflation each and every year for the past decade. Also, investment in police has more than doubled since 1997, with an extra £3.6 billion. Funding is higher and councils are deciding to keep tax rises lower. The threat of council tax capping is helping to keep those rises down.

However, a small minority of authorities imposed excessive increases on their council tax payers. As a result, as I explained in my statement to the House on 27 March, we designated eight authorities—seven police authorities and one local authority—with a view to capping them in-year. All eight authorities challenged their proposed cap, as is their right. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing and I met all seven police authorities together to hear their cases in person, and I also met Portsmouth city council to hear its case. Having considered carefully the representations that they made to us, I made a statement to the House on 26 June.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for the way in which both he and the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing accepted representations from Leicestershire police authority and others for which caps were proposed. My hon. Friend has said that Leicestershire will be capped next year. Can he confirm that he will be prepared to accept more representations before finally deciding on next year’s position?

That will indeed be the case. We propose to designate Leicestershire, Warwickshire and Cheshire police authorities for next year and allow them a maximum council tax increase of 3 per cent. When we formally announce the confirmation of that, there will be an opportunity for them to make representations, which we will take into account. I wish to signal clearly that we intend to follow through the decision that I announced on 26 June in respect of my right hon. Friend’s police authority.

We are protecting council tax payers in those three counties, and we will protect others by setting a lower threshold for capping in future years for Bedfordshire, Norfolk and Surrey police authorities and Portsmouth city council. Finally, we will protect council tax payers in Lincolnshire by going ahead with setting a maximum budget requirement for the police authority, although at a higher level than I proposed on 27 March. It will be equivalent to a 26 per cent. increase in council tax, rather than the 79 per cent. increase that it planned.

We are satisfied that all eight authorities can live with the action that we have taken and that none of the seven police authorities will need to reduce their number of police officers as a result.

The Minister has fairly said that this is to be effectively a standstill budget for Lincolnshire. Does he accept that given that, Lincolnshire police will not be able to improve its services in either the current year or future years?

The police authority told us that to put in place a balanced budget, it needed £5.3 million more than our proposed cap would have allowed, which included the cost of rebilling. We have gone further than that and allowed an increase of £5.7 million. It has confirmed in a press release that there will be no redundancies as a result of the decision, and it must now take the tough decisions that every police authority and local authority has to take. It must decide how to make the efficiencies that are needed and improve services at the same time within a tough budget and tough financial circumstances. I am confident that it will be able to do that.

The Minister has acknowledged in the House that Lincolnshire has specific problems, and he was good enough to seek and receive representations from the authority. Given the history of policing in Lincolnshire, the need to develop the service offered is profound—a “rock-solid” case, in the chief constable’s words. The budget may allow Lincolnshire police to stand still, but surely it will not allow it to grow and develop in the way that it wishes.

The hon. Gentleman is always assiduous in making a strong case for his area’s interests, but the police authority budget, following the action that I have proposed to the House, means that the authority will have more than £10 million above the level of last year’s budget. It can add a 26 per cent. rise on its council tax precept, which is more than it said that it needed to set a balanced budget. We have taken into careful account the full case made by the authority, both in writing and in person to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing, who, I am pleased to say, is sitting on the Front Bench, and to me.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way—he has been extremely generous. Does he accept and acknowledge that the very fact that he has allowed a 26 per cent. increase in the precept supports the Opposition’s view that there are serious problems with Home Office funding for Lincolnshire police authority funding?

The decision reflects aspects of the case, to which we listened carefully and which we accepted, made by the police authority, which challenged our original decision under the set process. However, the hon. Gentleman must take into account the fact that this year Lincolnshire police authority has received the fourth-largest rise in police grant of any police authority in the country. It is therefore not the case—this cannot seriously be argued—that the Government have not taken into account the pressures faced by Lincolnshire police authority. It is not right—I have not heard any Opposition Member argue for this—that that police authority should be able to impose a 79 per cent. increase in council tax on Lincolnshire council tax payers this year.

Perhaps the Minister has missed the principle. I served on Newcastle city council when it was capped by a Conservative Government, and I remember the objections from the Labour party and Labour councillors to the principle of central Government making that diktat. Surely, it is up to voters in the local area to make the judgment and decide whether they agree with the decisions and so on, rather than requiring an intervention from Westminster.

These are reserve powers. The decision to cap is not one that the Government take lightly. I am the Minister for Local Government, and I hear that argument from local government all the time—it is almost a canon of the case that it makes to Government. In past years, where there has been no threat of the use of council tax capping, there have been average rises of up to 12.9 per cent. It is not fair on local council tax payers if authorities set excessive increases. It is right that we have a reserve power and that we use it carefully and in a considered way, which is precisely how we have used it in the circumstances that we face this year.

I do not want to pursue a dialogue with the Minister, but he cannot have it both ways. Either he is saying that capping is an acceptable principle, in which case Labour would have been wrong to oppose it in the Conservative years, or alternatively he must accept the case that I have made, which is that it is wrong in principle, whatever one thinks about the 79 per cent. increase, for central intervention to squeeze out local democratic control.

I am interested that the hon. Gentleman is saying that the Liberal Democrats would abolish council tax capping. I mentioned earlier the risk that that poses to many council tax payers in local authority areas. It may not be desirable, but my argument is that it is necessary, which is why we have those powers in legislation. It is necessary in the particular case of Lincolnshire police authority this year. We are using those powers, and I have explained to the House and set out in the order precisely how and at what level we propose to do so.

Parliamentary procedure is required to consider and approve the order in relation to Lincolnshire police authority for this year. Parliamentary procedure will be required for the three authorities that we propose to designate and restrict to a 3 per cent. increase next year and the following year. No parliamentary procedure is involved in setting notional budget requirements, as we have done for the other four nominated authorities.

As I have said, the Government do not make decisions lightly about capping and the use of the powers. However, there is no excuse for setting an excessive council tax increase, and we remain ready to use the powers when necessary. I hope and believe that many people—particularly those on fixed incomes, such as pensioners—will welcome our determination to reduce the council tax burden in Lincolnshire this year. That will also help to protect residents in other authorities against excessive increases in future years.

The reduction in Lincolnshire on the average band D property this year as a result of the action that I am proposing this afternoon will be more than £69. That, of course, will require rebilling in Lincolnshire. The extra costs will fall on the police authority, but it can have no complaints about that. Rebilling is an inevitable consequence of setting an excessive increase and of being capped in-year. All authorities know that, and the best way to avoid rebilling is not to set an excessive increase in the first place.

I do not intend to interrupt the Minister again. Simply for information, may I ask him whether any calculation has been made in the discussions with Lincolnshire about the costs of rebilling, which, as he says, will fall on the police authority?

Lincolnshire proposed some costs for the likely rebilling exercise. In its press release responding to my statement of 26 June, the Association of Police Authorities confirmed that the cost would be approximately £500,000.

Will my hon. Friend state the saving to a band D householder in Lincolnshire as a result of the measures that the Government are implementing this afternoon, compared with the costs that would have arisen had the precept that the Lincolnshire police authority proposed been accepted?

That is an important question; it is the question that many people in Lincolnshire will ask. The answer is £69.56.

People are not prepared to accept excuses for high council tax increases, either this year or in future; nor are the Government. I put all authorities on notice that we will not tolerate excessive increases in future years and that we are prepared to use our capping powers to protect council tax payers. I commend the order to the House.

I thank the Minister for the careful and courteous way in which he has introduced the order. I am sure that the House will appreciate that. I understand that, technically, the order relates simply to the situation in Lincolnshire, and I certainly want to respect the terms of the debate. But however careful and measured the tone that the Minister has adopted in introducing the order, he cannot escape the fact that what we are discussing today is a symptom of a wider malaise, for which the Government have to take responsibility.

That wider malaise is made up, first, of the consistent and remorseless upward pressure on council tax. That affects not only people in Lincolnshire and the other authorities that were originally considered, but people right across the country. The malaise also consists of the tight financial settlement under which those authorities and others across the country find themselves. We must not forget that the Government cannot say that they are seeking to protect council tax payers in Lincolnshire while escaping the responsibility, which has to lie with them, for that underlying malaise.

The increase in council tax is down to Government policy. The tightness of the financial settlement that affects those authorities is, again, the direct result of Government policy. It is worth reminding the House that for all the Minister’s words about the protection of council tax payers, his Government have seen council tax double in the past 10 years. The tightness of the financial settlement, described by the Association of Chief Police Officers as the tightest settlement for police authorities in years, was, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) pointed out when the matter was first debated in the House, the direct consequence of a macro-economic problem—the borrowing problem—that the Government have got themselves into.

The simple fact is that the Government wasted money when it was available. They borrowed too much, and now they have to tighten up on the funding that is available to local authorities. Local authorities are feeling the pinch, and that means reductions in budgets or pressure on council tax. The Government are introducing this order because of a situation that is ultimately of their creation and their responsibility. That needs to be set in context.

I know that several right hon. and hon. Members from Lincolnshire want to participate in the debate, so I will not go into much local detail. However, it clearly cannot be justified to say that Lincolnshire is historically a particularly profligate authority; indeed, the evidence suggests that police funding in Lincolnshire, in terms of spend per head and so on, is comparatively low.

I think that my hon. Friend will find that our hon. Friends will say that there is a structural problem with the grant in Lincolnshire that needs to be addressed. I do not expect him to give a guarantee today of what we will do when we get into government, but I hope that if and when that happens, we will look urgently at the grant to see whether it is truly unfair to Lincolnshire. If, as I believe, that is the case, we will alter it to make more resources available to the county and to the police force in particular.

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for making that point, which he raised when the funding settlement was originally discussed in this House. In that debate, he said that it seemed pretty clear to many local people that there is a problem with the operation of the national grant in relation to Lincolnshire, as well as in Leicestershire, which also figured in the discussions. It was clear that several authorities in that part of England were suffering from this.

I want to make my hon. Friend aware that the operation of the funding formula is so penal in its impact on Lincolnshire that in the financial year 2003-04 its police authority was the only one in England and Wales to have its per capita funding cut.

My hon. Friend has reinforced the point. In the earlier debate, the Government were put on notice of this situation. It was clearly flagged up that, in addition to the other pressures that I have mentioned, the financial risk as regards the financing of the police service had in effect been transferred away from the Government on to the citizens of Lincolnshire. A perverse situation has developed.

This is yet another example of the situation whereby, first, we are reaching a stage where the capping regime in this form has gone beyond its useful lifespan, and secondly, it is demonstrably clear that the way in which the formula works is not transparent or seen to be fair. That applies not only to police authorities but to local authorities generally. There are problems with the national police funding formula and with the formula for the revenue support grant. People do not have faith in how these settlements are calculated. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Higg) has said, in due course an incoming Conservative Government will need to take some fundamental action on how we allocate and distribute grant.

The Government are trying to shift and shuffle responsibility. I see that the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing is here. He is very good at shifting and shuffling responsibility—[Interruption]—and making sedentary comments as he goes. That is a speciality of his; we are all used to it now, and he may as well know that it goes straight over my head, so he can save his breath.

The reality is that the Government created this situation by their own economic incompetence and made it worse by a lack of transparency and honesty in how they have dealt with local government. Despite having been given early notice of the problem by right hon. and hon. Members representing the areas concerned, they did nothing to address the structural problems; instead, they are applying a sticking plaster, in the form of the capping power, far too late.

At the end of the day, of course, the official Opposition will not oppose this order, but we have to set the record straight and say that it is not entirely fair to point the finger at Lincolnshire and the police authority. The Government should turn the mirror on themselves and accept that this is the consequence of their policy and their failure. Sadly, it is the people of Lincolnshire who have to face the consequences.

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). We served together on the Select Committee on Justice. He did not blame the Government quite as much in that Committee as he did tonight. I have to differ from him; it is not the Government’s fault that they have to cap Lincolnshire. As we heard from the Minister, the Government have been generous to the extent that they allowed an increase well above that they allowed other authorities.

I do not claim to know everything about the way in which policing operates in Lincolnshire, but as the House knows, Leicestershire was one of the police authorities originally proposed for capping, and following representations made to the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing, who is on the Front Bench today, the Government decided not to cap it, but may do so next year. Hence my intervention on the Minister to ensure that there will be an opportunity before that process begins for authorities that were not capped this year to make representations.

Members representing constituencies in Lincolnshire, on both sides of the House, will want to make specific points about what the Opposition spokesperson described as structural problems affecting policing in that area, which they feel justify—or not—the proposed increase put to the Government. I shall confine my remarks to concern about the number of police authorities that were originally proposed for capping, which will also be of interest to those in Lincolnshire. It is a worry because a problem that is developing may develop further in future. It means that the Government and police authorities will have to take a closer look at a situation where for the first time—perhaps the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—seven of the eight authorities that would have been affected were police authorities.

Next week, the Government will publish their response to Sir Ronnie Flanagan’s report, which looks at the issue of a more efficient, more effective police force. I do not expect either of the Ministers here today to tell us what is in that response, but during the past six months, as we conducted our review into policing, I and my colleagues in the Select Committee found that the issue of police funding came up in all our discussions. It was raised by almost all the chief constables we spoke to—I think that we took evidence from 15 of the 42 chief constables in England and Wales, but unfortunately not the chief constable of Lincolnshire. Each one of them raised the issue of funding.

I shall raise three issues that I hope will be of benefit not just to the Lincolnshire police authority, but to other police authorities that may face such action next year. The first concerns new technology. It is a mystery to me why each different police authority is able to purchase its own equipment separately at whatever cost it negotiates. Surely procurement for all our police forces, including Lincolnshire, would ensure that the cost to all of them would be less. That may have meant that Lincolnshire would not have had to ask for such a rise.

In Leicestershire, new technology—hand-held computers —was purchased from a different company to the one that I discovered was used by Staffordshire when I visited Staffordshire constabulary last Friday. It purchases from a different company from Greater Manchester police authority, which the Select Committee visited on Monday. More central guidance, with all police forces procuring equipment from the same company, would save a great deal of money and make it relatively easy for police authorities to communicate with each other. That applies to other computers and technology as well as hand-held computers.

Different authorities may buy different computer systems from different companies, thus making it difficult in some cases to transfer data from one to another. We already know that there is a problem with, for example, Lincolnshire’s ability to provide information through Europol to police authorities in Europe, because it operates a different computer system.

I am sure that the Government have made the right decision, because I know that both Ministers will have examined the representations carefully. However, we should consider such matters, because police authorities generally could benefit.

The right hon. Gentleman said that the Home Affairs Committee had received many comments from chief constables to the effect that there are problems with the formula. He is Chairman of the Select Committee, and it might be in its remit, and a useful exercise, to undertake a study of the formula’s operation, with particular though not exclusive regard to the interests of some of the shire counties—Lincolnshire is one—where it is believed that the formula does not work fairly.

Clearly, the Select Committee may examine that subject in future. We are reaching the end of our six-month inquiry into policing in the 21st century. The choreography has been slightly out of synch with the Government’s timetable, because the Green Paper will be published after our last evidence session, which is with the Mayor of London next Tuesday. However, we may revert to the subject in future. If the police Minister decides that it should feature in the Green Paper, or if the Government want us to re-examine amalgamations, which the newspapers suggested today—we do not know, because the statement will be made next week, and I am simply repeating what I have read—the Select Committee will clearly want to consider the formula.

The formula causes me concern because, as I said, seven authorities are police authorities. At a time when we need to put as many resources as possible into policing, it is worrying that so many authorities, including Lincolnshire, are police authorities. I have not examined in the same great detail as Ministers the case that each police authority has made, but we need to consider the way in which they operate if we are to be helpful in future.

Secondly, let me consider police efficiencies. Again, I do not want to prejudge the Green Paper that the police Minister will publish next week, but I am sure that he will refer to Sir Ronnie Flanagan’s proposed efficiencies. We have taken evidence from Sir Ronnie Flanagan. Of course, efficiencies should occur in the police service in Lincolnshire, Leicestershire and all the other areas, but it is essential that that does not detract from visible policing.

Last Friday, I went to Burton on Trent, where I met the divisional commander with the local Member of Parliament, who is a member of the Select Committee, and we examined Staffordshire’s innovative approach to reducing bureaucracy and red tape. It had reduced casework files from 16 pages to one page. I do not know whether that has happened in Lincolnshire; nor am I sure whether it has occurred in Leicestershire, because I have not asked our chief constable. [Interruption.] The police Minister claims that that has happened. It is another example of good practice that should be rolled out in other parts of the country, thus releasing, in the words of Sir Ronnie Flanagan, a great deal of police time. Some say that the reduction of red tape can release up to 50 minutes of a police officer’s time. If one compares that with the number of police officers in Lincolnshire, it will mean a huge saving in hours. It would be interesting to know whether other authorities do that.

The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, but would he differentiate between the burden on police officers as a result of bureaucracy, much of which, although not all, comes from this Government, and the efficiency of the authority? The Government commissioned an investigation of the authority by PricewaterhouseCoopers that found only minimal room for savings, which would have made little difference to the fundamental funding crisis that we are discussing today.

As I said at the start, the hon. Gentleman knows much more about what is happening in Lincolnshire than I do. However, the reduction in a case file from 16 pages to one page makes a huge time-saving difference for police officers, as do hand-held computers.

If an officer can write down their report on a hand-held computer when they are on the scene, it will be more accurate than if they do so when they return to the police station. We have several distinguished silks in the Chamber today, who will be used to police officers reading out from their notebooks in court. Probably the first question that they ask is, “When did you make up your notes?” If an officer has a hand-held computer at the scene of an incident, they can immediately make up their notes on the spot and check so much more information—who owns the car, whether it is stolen and all that kind of stuff.

The hon. Gentleman’s intervention brings me to my final point, which concerns the number of laws that we pass in this place and the burden that we place on the police, including the police in Lincolnshire. Another great statistic produced by Sir Ronnie Flanagan is that stop and search results in 48,000 hours of police time spent meeting targets and ensuring that, for every stop and search carried out, certain forms are filled in that eventually find their way into the Home Office somewhere. Obviously it is important that there should be recording of certain activities and events, but I am not sure whether we should record every event in the way that we have in the past.

The situation in Lincolnshire is probably different from that in other parts of the country, because it is up to the police authority and the chief constable to decide on certain issues. Certain chief constables have said that there is no need to fill in certain forms. Others have felt that they are obliged to follow everything that the Home Office says. It is important that we should have one practice throughout the country. However, this is not a plea for central control, and it will not save Lincolnshire tonight, because it seems that the Opposition will not vote against the Government, even though the Opposition spokesman is very cross at what they are doing.

There is more that we can do. I urge the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing, who I know listens and takes on good practice as much as he can, to see whether any good practice can be rolled out in other authorities, so that we do not find next year that other police authorities like Leicestershire are subject to a cap. If that sounds like an early plea for Leicestershire, it is. I have not dwelt on Leicestershire, in view of your strictures at the start of the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I hope very much that the Minister will take what I have said into account when he makes any decisions in the future.

This rare usage of the central check on council tax goes to show, with more significance than ever before, the severe lack of funding for police authorities, which has left Lincolnshire police authority with no conceivable choice but to use its council tax precepts to try to improve its service. The decision is embarrassingly last-minute and will cause huge disruption to the police service planning to use those funds. Furthermore, the administrative costs of changing the council tax increase will be disproportionate to the benefits that it will reap. Indeed, the Minister has already told us the colossal cost of changing the plan.

This situation has come about because the tight police funding settlement has left police authorities with relatively little choice. As we heard from the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), a great deal of work has to be done, and that is increasing all the time because we pass too many laws in this place. Unsurprisingly, it therefore follows that certain police authorities, including Lincolnshire, feel obliged to make substantial increases in the council tax demand in order to achieve their goal.

The 2008-09 settlement was the tightest for many years, with a 2.7 per cent. grant increase. It will be 2.8 per cent. in 2009-10 and 2010-11. That is effectively a real-terms freeze, or perhaps a contracting budget if inflation does as we fear it will. The needs formula is obviously seriously flawed, and some areas are already missing out on additional grant resources that the formula itself says they need. This will simply exacerbate the existing problems.

The police authorities are forced to make up the shortfalls through the council tax—they have no other way of doing it. Yet again, the Government’s spending squeeze has pushed the responsibility on to police authorities, yet the Government are blaming them for shortfalls created by underfunding from central Government. That is the paradox. A police authority can find itself being capped for trying to achieve the income that it needs to fulfil the targets that it has been set by the Government. That is why so many people are angry about this, and it goes some way towards illustrating the frustration that the police authorities unquestionably feel at having to cut back on plans that were, after all, designed to improve public safety.

This will have an impact on police services on the ground. In Lincolnshire, Chief Constable Richard Crompton has vowed to maintain his staff at its current level. He has said, however, that plans to employ 100 additional officers and police community support officers—which he claims would have made a real difference to people living in Lincolnshire—will be abandoned. He had wanted to increase the number of officers monitoring serious offenders, including sex offenders, but that will now have to be put on ice indefinitely because the police authority does not have the necessary money.

This is also bad for police service planning. How can authorities be expected to plan their services and ensure that they can adequately protect their local community when the Government move the goalposts at the last minute? As I have said, the administrative costs involved are quite significant, but the principle behind the action conspires with the logistical problems to create administrative chaos as well as political contradiction. For example, some people who already pay by standing order will have no time to make the necessary change and could find themselves in arrears. We have already discussed the content of the funding formula. Incidentally, most council tax rises are above 5 per cent. if precepts are included. So there is a practical problem, and also one of principle.

I was rather surprised by the comments made by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). He is a tremendously nice chap, but he seemed to be highlighting a contradiction in the Conservative party’s position. He said that this mess was a direct result of Government policy and that it seemed pretty clear that the lateral grants system was not working. He also said that the Government had created that situation. I agree with his criticisms, but we need to remember that it was none other than the Conservative Government who capped Lincolnshire police authority in 1995, in exactly the same way as the present Government are doing. I do not really understand how there can be political consistency in condemning the Minister and his Government today for doing something that the hon. Gentleman’s party did 13 years ago—unlucky for some.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will take on board the fact that I quite deliberately said that the capping regime had passed its usefulness, and that the circumstances that applied in local government back in the 1980s were rather different from those that apply now. Perhaps he would also acknowledge that the Conservatives have a coherent policy, because we would abolish the capping regime and replace it with a democratic vote by putting excessive council tax rises to the electorate by way of a referendum. If the hon. Gentleman is keen on local democracy, perhaps he would like to endorse that proposal.

I simply do not understand why the hon. Gentleman feels that that intervention—eloquent though it was—goes any way towards explaining the evident self-contradiction in the Conservative party’s position. Thirteen years ago—we are not talking about the 1980s here—the Conservatives capped the Lincolnshire police authority. When they were sitting on the other side of the House, they did exactly the same thing that they are condemning the current Labour Government for doing. It is encouraging to hear the hon. Gentleman say that times have changed, but I remind him of the simple statistic that between 1991 and 1997, the Conservatives capped 31 authorities. I do not understand how he thinks he can get away with saying that capping is a thing of the past, when the Conservatives used it with gay abandon throughout the time they were in government in the 1990s. Perhaps there are other political reasons why Conservative Members are so keen on condemning capping now, but they need to provide a great deal more evidence before any Member could seriously believe that if the Conservatives were in government, they would do anything other than what the present Government are doing.

Let me move on to deal with the Liberal Democrat position. I agree with the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst that the capping regime has passed its sell-by date, but so has council tax. The underlying issue is that we have an unfair system for funding these services. As hon. Members will know, Sir Michael Lyons’s review recommended the abolition of capping and said that last-minute decisions were costly to administer, so—

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This is a very short debate and many Lincolnshire Members want to contribute to it, but the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), having treated us to an imperfect history of the 1980s and ’90s, is now describing the peculiarities of the Liberal Democrat manifesto. Is that in order?

Were it not, I certainly would have stopped the hon. Gentleman, but I am sure that he has heard the remarks that have just been made.

I am not surprised to see that, with all the contradictions in their policies, the Conservatives are squirming. I would point out to the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) that eight minutes is a relatively modest contribution and that unless I am considerably provoked, I will not see my way through to 11 minutes.

Let me also remind Conservative Members that the alternative is to have a system that would prevent us from being in this mess in the first place. Once again, we hear hints from Conservative Front Benchers that they do not like capping, so I would infer that they are not terribly comfortable with the council tax system as a whole. Perhaps, then, we could make common cause with a better system in the form of a local income tax, which would do away with these problems.

Given that the current situation is as it is, however, I revert to the fundamental principle that we find objectionable, and that when in opposition, the Labour party found objectionable: the principle of laying down the financial circumstances of local authorities from Westminster. That is exactly what we are doing here. Either we believe in local democracy and accept that local people have the right to vote on and object to these matters—in this case through consultation with local representatives—or we believe that the central state has the right to usurp those decisions.

The Liberal Democrats are utterly opposed to capping. We want the responsibility to lie in the local area and we think that, rather than having us intervene from a distance as we are now, we should allow the decision to be taken locally. Nobody thinks that a 79 per cent. increase is good, but any right-minded person who is serious about devolution and democracy can see that the principle of capping is very bad. For that reason, we shall press for a vote.

I was rather brought up to believe that the prime and foundational task of a Member of Parliament was to defend his or her constituents against unreasonable, excessive or unjust taxation. I rise this afternoon, conscious that that is what I am trying to do. I am struck by the fact that no Conservative Member—from Lincolnshire or anywhere else—appears to be remotely interested in playing that particular role. They are here, either explicitly or silently, to defend a completely unreasonable precept proposed by Lincolnshire police authority. With the honourable and laudable exception of the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who is not in his place, Conservative Members from Lincolnshire have been so much behind this precept—unreasonable and absurd as it is—that I am led to believe that the Conservatives on the police authority were whipped to vote in its favour.

It is against that background that we should interpret what the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) has said this afternoon. I have nothing against him personally: he is a Front-Bench spokesman and he has to do as good a job as he can; he did so on the basis of a very bad brief. We know what that job consists of, however, because we see it done every day. Opposition Front Benchers come to the House and say, “It’s all the Government’s fault—it’s all terrible.” This afternoon the hon. Gentleman talked of a long-term malaise that was apparently all the Government’s fault, without ever saying what the Conservatives would do differently. He did not suggest for a moment that they would introduce a different level or form of grant, or change the formula. What is more, he did not have the courage of his convictions in criticising the Government. Obviously he does not want to make himself even more unpopular in Lincolnshire by voting against the order, so he announced that he would not vote against it or call on his colleagues to do so.

In terms of its content the hon. Gentleman’s speech was a complete washout, although it was delivered in his usual charming fashion. As I have said, I do not blame him in any way. All that he is doing is coming to the House just as his colleagues do. It is only because we listen to the same thing every day that we can see through it. I understand why the public might initially think, “That sounds very plausible: something must be wrong, and it is all the Government’s fault—how terrible.” Nice Tories, with their modern image, would not apply their critical faculties and realise that what is being proposed is complete air, complete hollowness, complete nothingness. That is the background to so many debates in the House of Commons nowadays, and to so many Opposition motions.

Let me turn to the specifics of Lincolnshire. Lincolnshire is very well policed. We are fortunate enough to have a good police force, and there are very good relationships between the public and the police. That is not the case in every part of the country. In rather more than 20 years in politics representing the people of south Lincolnshire in slightly different constituencies—the constituency boundaries changed midstream—I have never encountered a case of police corruption or police violence. I will touch wood, because we all know that human beings are fallible everywhere, but I do not believe that there have been any such cases over that period, and probably for a long time before. We are deeply appreciative of that.

It is perfectly reasonable for a chief constable to have ambitious desires to develop the force, improve the service to the public and improve the facilities available to officers and civilian staff. I am sure that I would feel the same if I were a chief constable. Anyone who runs an organisation feels like that. There is an element of empire-building in any form of management. In the private sector it is controlled by competition: those who become uncompetitive go out of business. In the public sector, it must be controlled by some other discipline. There must be some external countervailing force or influence to prevent excessive spending. That is why we need the disciplines that we have in the public sector today, one of which is the capping mechanism.

I do not blame the chief constable—a previous chief constable, in fact—for producing a wish list that seems to have been excessively imaginative. I do, however, blame the police authority for not only accepting the wish list but adding to it, in an extremely uncritical fashion. I read with great attention the business plan and budget that the authority produced last summer, and begged its members not to proceed with it. Several things were wrong with it. First, it was far too long and full of verbiage and jargon. It was very incoherent and badly organised, and as a result very unconvincing. I think that someone else should draft the police authority’s business plans in future. Secondly, it made a number of extravagant demands without any critical examination of the possibility of internal savings.

A year ago almost to the day, I wrote a letter to the chairman of the police authority and the chief constable asking a number of questions. I asked, for example, why the number of civilians employed in the force could not be increased. Lincolnshire has a lower civilian quota than other shire counties. I received no reasoned answer to that question. I asked why we were not using specials more, and about a number of aspects of policing that seemed to me to be less than essential. I asked why we did not drop them and use the resources elsewhere, employing the officers concerned in other tasks. More recently, I have asked why our financial proposals do not take account of potential savings from the Flanagan reforms, and why we have not—as some constabularies have rightly done—tried to anticipate the reforms by getting rid of superfluous bureaucracy in advance. There is a lot of superfluous bureaucracy in the police force.

The Lincolnshire police force has over the past few months not been behaving in the way we would expect if it were true that it has been reduced to penury; far from it, in fact. We opened a very nice new police station in Grantham last year, and within a month or two it was being repainted. On a Saturday afternoon a few weeks ago in Lincolnshire, I saw two policemen with speed guns engaged in traffic policing, but traffic policing should, on the whole, be done by civilians operating electronic equipment. I am always told that the real strain on policing occurs at the weekends—that that is the expensive time, and that that is when there are often law and order difficulties in various places, such as at football matches on Saturday afternoons. I believe that we should use more specials at such times, but leaving that point to one side, there were those two uniformed officers not chasing after dangerous criminals or engaged in the kind of dramatic police operations that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) was saying will have to be sacrificed if Lincolnshire does not get the money it is demanding, but simply handing out speeding tickets.

Neither my analysis of the Lincolnshire police budget and business plan, nor my own experience of Lincolnshire police, nor the reactions of my constituents—whom I believe are 100 per cent. behind me in everything I am saying on the subject—lead me to think that the demand for a 78 or 79 per cent. increase in the police precept from one year to the next was remotely reasonable or justified. The police authority’s task should be not to accept uncritically what the force is asking for, let alone to add to its wish list, but to act as an intermediary between the police and the public, and to take account of the taxpayers’ interests and of what the taxpayer can reasonably be expected to pay, and of what it is reasonable to ask for by way of an increase in charge for a public service from one week, month and year to the next.

Last week, we were talking about how great an increase in the pay of Members of Parliament it might be reasonable to ask for, even if in the past they have been underpaid in relation to other professions, which is, of course, perfectly true. We asked whether it would be acceptable to have a sudden dramatic catch-up over the course of a year. Even if there is an argument that Lincolnshire should have been more generously funded in the past, which I think it should have been, and even if there are arguments about the funding formula—which there are, and I believe the funding formula could be greatly improved—was it reasonable to go for a 78 per cent. increase? Was that even sensible or pragmatic? The people who did this have public responsibilities. They are supposed to act in a way that is not only sound in terms of the philosophy of what they are doing, but which makes sense pragmatically in terms of making it likely that they will achieve the objectives of the institution for which they have a charge. They suddenly asked for 78 per cent—I think the figure is 78.5 per cent. actually, but I always say 78 per cent. to try to be fair. [Interruption.] The Minister says the figure is 79 per cent. Regardless of which is correct, to ask for such an increase from one year to the next is immediately not to be taken seriously. Therefore, I think the police authority did a very irresponsible job.

Moreover, the police authority is entirely responsible, as it knew the score. It had people, including me, begging it not to go down that road, and it knew it would have to rebill if it was capped. Therefore, it is entirely responsible for this £500,000—that is the figure we have heard this afternoon—which it will cost to rebill. I have called in my constituency, and I call now in the House, for the resignation of the chairman of the police authority and of all those members of it who voted for this completely inordinate increase, because I think they did a very bad day’s work in doing so. They were quite irresponsible in the way in which they conducted that exercise, and they have now lost all credibility. I suspect they have lost a lot of credibility in Whitehall, and they have certainly lost a lot of credibility with the public in Lincolnshire, who can see that they were trying to get £100 or more out of them for a band D property, and they have now succeeded in getting only £30 for such a property. Also, as has been made clear, there will not be any redundancies as a result. A lot of the panicky propaganda that has been mouthed in Lincolnshire over the past few months has been seen to be as empty as the rhetoric we heard this afternoon from the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst.

The House has just heard a rather disagreeable attack on my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) and a rather self-regarding speech from the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), which included a rather disagreeable attack on the police authority. The hon. Gentleman will forgive me for saying that his present position on policy, and indeed in this House, would be more impressive if it had more to do with principle and less with personal pique. That is the last that I shall say of or to the hon. Gentleman in this debate.

No, I will not give way. I had to give way to the hon. Gentleman when he sat on these Benches. I am happy to say that I do not have to give way to him now, and I do not propose to do so. I hope that I have made my position clear.

I have no doubt that my constituents will be relieved by the fact that there has been a capping order. Inevitably, they were distressed by an increase at the level proposed by the police authority. Inevitably, they will also be relieved that they will pay less as a consequence of the capping order, but we must understand that what the police authority did reflected a serious underlying problem within the Lincolnshire police force.

Those of us who have represented the county for many years, and my hon. Friends who have been in their places throughout this debate, know well that the Lincolnshire police force faces a serious problem of structural underfunding. Only a limited number of sources of finance are available to the police service. There is the precept, there is central Government grant and there is a special grant. The problem that Lincolnshire faces—and has faced for several years—is that the underlying grant has been too low. It is possible that we could criticise the police authority, in temperate and courteous language, for not having in the past increased the precept by as much as it could have done. I am inclined to think that there is some merit in that criticism and if the hon. Gentleman had confined himself to that, I would have had some sympathy with him.

It is also possible that further savings could be made by the police service. I was, many years ago, a Home Office Minister with responsibility for the police and I am conscious that there are few police forces of which one could say that there are no further savings that they could sensibly make. However, that does not go to the root of the matter, which is one of structural underfunding.

The Lincolnshire police force is now looking at a structural shortfall—a deficit—in 2010 of £14 million. It can put that right only through an increase in its funding or a decrease in expenditure. One of the real problems that face police services—and local authorities, fire and ambulance services—is that more than 80 per cent. of their budget goes on manpower. If police services want to shrink their budgets, they have to cut manpower. It can be done over time by reducing the number of uniformed officers, but I do not think that many people in Lincolnshire want to see that happen. It can be done by sacking civilian staff, but that involves up-front redundancy costs and then requires uniformed staff to do the tasks previously done by the civilian staff. That also reduces front-line services.

We should be as unpartisan as we can about this problem—and I make that point to the hon. Gentleman. There is a structural problem in Lincolnshire. I suspect that that is also true of Norfolk, Suffolk and some of the other forces. Why that should be so, I am not wholly clear. I have some difficulty in understanding the formula, as does the hon. Gentleman. He attended many a meeting that I did, and he did not understand, any more than I did, exactly how the formula was calculated. I have a strong feeling that rural areas are being discriminated against. That is not deliberate or malevolent, but because the Government’s sympathies are not with the rural areas they have not focused on the matter with the intensity with which they should.

I suspect that something like the following is true of Lincolnshire. Although it is a sparsely populated county, habitations are located quite close together. There are not many areas of wildness where there is nobody. Areas that contain nobody do not have to be policed too much, but sparsely populated counties with a lot of habitation have an intensive police requirement.

The characteristic that my right hon. and learned Friend is describing with such eloquence is that of a sparse and scattered population. I suspect that the formula that he described is insensitive to sparsity and almost oblivious to the kind of scattered population that he describes.

My hon. Friend has put it more eloquently than I have and I am extremely grateful to him.

There has been recognition of the underlying problem because the Home Office made a specific grant of £3.4 million last year. The fact that the capping has allowed the precept to rise by 26 per cent. or so is also an implied recognition of the problem. At the very best, it allows for a standstill budget and no more.

Most people in the county, and most sensible commentators, too, will accept that the police in Lincolnshire are not performing as well as they should. They need more resources and unless there is a determination to drive up the base income, which is derived from the formula, there will be no prospect of a substantial increase in the resources dedicated to the county in the foreseeable future. I will not vote against the order, unlike the Liberal Democrats, because I recognise that it will be a considerable relief to my constituents. I will not embark on intemperate criticism of the police authority, such as that which I found so deeply unattractive, because it is wrestling with a serious problem and doing the best that it can in difficult circumstances. Unless we confront the problem of the formula, Lincolnshire and other police forces will find themselves in continuing difficulties that they will be unable to resolve.

My right hon. and learned Friend is eloquently putting the balanced case that is of great concern to our constituents. Is he also of the view, as I am, that the significant increase in population in certain parts of Lincolnshire, particularly in my constituency around Boston, caused by a significant number of economic migrants coming to work in the agricultural and horticultural sectors has not yet significantly been taken appropriately into account and reflected in the funding formula and the money that comes to the police authority?

I am sure that that is right. Thinking back to when I had dealings with the formula, which I always had great difficulty in understanding, I knew that there were long lead times and that the configuration of the county would change but that the changes in the configuration would take time to be fed into the formula. In the case of my hon. Friend’s constituency, I am well aware that there has been a huge influx, particularly from eastern Europe, of migrant workers, many of whom bring special problems—for example, linguistic problems. That raises an issue for the local force and I am sure that that has not been reflected.

Incidentally, I find visitors from eastern Europe quite charming, especially those from Romania. My point about the funding formula relates to the discrimination that I am certain is taking place and that is taking funding away from rural areas. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that if that is the case it is probably happening because the performance indicators cause the police and the Government to try to focus police resources on places where they can get the biggest hit, which tend to be in the inner city? As a direct result, both Lincolnshire and my constituency, Montgomeryshire, have suffered when it comes to police resources.

There is some truth in that. May I speak as a barrister, just for a moment? I practise in the criminal courts and in that capacity I am aware of the intensity of crime in inner-city areas. I represent people from Leeds and Bradford, and often from London as well, and I am really conscious of how lawless large parts of the inner cities have become. I recognise therefore that the Government feel that the police have to address those issues seriously, and I agree, but I think that they tend to overlook the problems that occur in the countryside. Although crime levels as such are lower in rural areas, anxiety about crime remains very high, and particular types of crime remain very difficult to detect, in part because of the sparsely populated nature of the countryside. I think that the Government’s sympathies are not inherently with the rural areas, which they find easier to neglect than they do the cities.

I shall not accuse the Minister of being complacent, as I understand that he is speaking to a brief. I understand too that he can say, “Well, a standstill budget, what’s wrong with that?” However, I hope that he will take away from this debate an understanding that Lincolnshire has a serious problem with its police. He has prevented an immediate crisis, but he has not enabled the police to provide the better service that they need to provide.

The Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing, along with the police authority, has been good enough to see me and to speak about this matter on a number of occasions. I hope that the two Ministers will seriously ask themselves whether they are content with the level and standing of the police in Lincolnshire. If the honest answer to that is no—and that is the proper answer to give—they need to work together and with others to see whether more central Government funding can be brought to the Lincolnshire police budget.

It is an immense pleasure to follow my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). Before I speak about the police funding formula and Lincolnshire, I should like to put on record the fact that the Ministers for Local Government and for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing have both treated the representations made to them with care and courtesy.

At the end of my remarks I shall be making a further demand of the Minister, but I shall begin with a word about the formula. I have understood local government finance only twice, and then fleetingly. My right hon. and learned Friend said, with a degree of humility matched only by his eloquence, that he barely understood it at all when he had responsibility for it. The first time that I understood it fleetingly was when I studied it at university as part of my degree, and the second time was when, as a Nottinghamshire county councillor, I proposed a budget amendment during that council’s annual budget meeting.

Those occasions were brief candles, now long extinguished, but I do understand that the formula does not serve Lincolnshire well. From the communications that I have received from the police authority, as well as from my discussions with Ministers and my conversations with my hon. Friends, I suspect that that is due in part to the formula’s failure to cope adequately with the particular problems of rural areas and their sparse and scattered populations, and in part to its unresponsiveness to change.

My hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) will speak about the situation in Boston with altogether more knowledge than I can, but, as has been mentioned, the incoming population from central and eastern Europe has caused dramatic change in the area. I am not sure that the formula is terribly good at dealing with the rapidity of the changes that we have seen in Lincolnshire, or with the difficulties of providing a public service in a demography such as Lincolnshire’s.

We might say the same about health provision or the social services, but the problem is exaggerated in respect of policing, which faces a combination of demands. One is the need to respond to urgent problems, and that is coupled with the need for a profile which, if not ever present, is at least sufficient to reassure the public and deter criminals.

I am sure that the Minister has recognised that the formula needs to be re-examined. Unless it is, we will end up in this circumstance again, we will debate the matters in a similar fashion and Ministers will spend inordinate amounts of time trying to come to a settlement, following the representations made to them by people such as us, the police authority and others. That would not be a satisfactory position for the House, for Lincolnshire or, indeed, for the Government.

The feeling in Lincolnshire about those matters is running high. I was pleased to present to 10 Downing street a petition that was signed by several thousand of my constituents and organised between me and the local newspaper, the Lincolnshire Free Press, which was kind enough to publish coupons that local people filled in, demanding that the Government take action. In that much I agree—although it pains me to do so—with the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), whose presence is a delight to me, if only because, however inadequate my contribution, by contrast with his it will shine. He is right to concede that it must be said that the Government have at least responded to the concerns by using their discretion on capping.

The Government were right not to cap the authority at 5 per cent., because the effect would have been monstrous, but I understand why the Government took the view that the scale of the authority’s proposed increase was intolerable, because it would have not only ridden roughshod over policy, but placed an unfair burden on my constituents. However, by allowing the 26 per cent. increase, the Government have implicitly acknowledged that there is an infrastructural funding problem, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham described it. By accepting an increase of that size, they acknowledged that the police authority was in crisis, and that if they had not permitted that—still very large—increase, it would have faced cuts and closures, jeopardising public safety and public order in the estimation both of the authority, which has done a good job in making its case, as Ministers acknowledge, and of the police force, which has worked closely with representatives and with the authority.

May I just refer to the point that my hon. Friend made about allowing the precept to rise by about 26 per cent? That implies that the grant should have been higher by the amount of the increase in the precept, but the Government are in fact shifting the responsibility from the central taxpayer to the local taxpayer to perform that which central Government should be performing.

Yes, indeed. It is not only an implicit acknowledgement of the scale of the problem, but, as my right hon. and learned Friend suggests, a transfer of responsibility for solving the problem. People in Lincolnshire will say, “We’re doing our bit, why isn’t the Government doing their bit?” We may be judging Ministers too harshly, and at the end of the debate, the Minister may tell us that he will conduct a root-and-branch review of the formula and make a special grant available to the police force, as the Government did last year.

I shall happily give way to my hon. Friend, who is an assiduous champion of his constituents’ interests in that regard and in many others.

I think that my hon. Friend is coming to the crux of his remarks. He is absolutely right that there was a special one-off grant of £3.4 million last year to the Lincolnshire police authority, but is he aware that when the Government calculated the increase this year, they did not take into account that £3.4 million as the base figure, thereby making the authority’s increased funding actually a decrease in the amount that it received last year?

My hon. Friend brings to the debate an understanding and a knowledge that I could not hope to emulate, and he is right to say that the addition of that £3.4 million effectively raised the baseline. It had become the standard, the norm, for the police authority, because it had spent and absorbed it, and the assumptions on which its future plans were predicated were built around that absorption. My hon. Friend has made a useful point. When we debated the matter in previous weeks and months, I wondered whether the Government might not only allow an exceptional rise in the precept but make a similar kind of grant, given the facts that my hon. Friend set out so clearly. That would, in a sense, be a compromise. It would broadcast the message that Government were doing their bit and the council tax payers were doing theirs.

However, as I say, perhaps the Minister has something up his sleeve—a rabbit that he will produce from his hat—in the form of extra money, or at least a commitment to a root-and-branch reform of the formula. I also hope that he will give a commitment—I make this request to him quite plainly—to meet representatives of the authority and the force as a matter of urgency to plan what will happen in the immediate future and in the next 12 months, so that we avoid a recurrence of these circumstances.

Others want to speak, and I do not want to test their patience, or the patience of the House, too much, but in summary, we remain in our current circumstances. We have been given a very useful briefing by the police authority, to which I will refer. Lincolnshire remains the lowest spending force per head of population, and the force with the fewest officers per head of population. Despite having less resources than any other force in the country, Lincolnshire police are expected to cover the third biggest geographical area. Is it any wonder that the police authority, but more especially the police force, in the form of the former chief constable and our new chief constable—a splendid man, who I know will do his very best with the resources available to him—are so worried about their ability to provide the level and quality of policing that, in their judgment, the communities in Lincolnshire need and deserve? The chief constable has said

“we cannot make the investment into policing in Lincolnshire which we know is necessary to provide acceptable levels of service.”

When policemen make remarks of that kind, we know that there is a serious problem.

We are not talking about providing an exemplary level of service, or about an ambitious—perhaps unreasonably so—plan for how policing might be improved. We are talking about acceptability—a baseline level of service. Surely my constituents in South Holland and The Deepings, and other residents of Lincolnshire, deserve at least that. I am sure that the Minister, who is a good Minister, would not demur.

Finally, I hope that the case that has been made is a measured one. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford—I do not want to be unnecessarily unkind to him, but it is necessary to be reasonably unkind to him—claims that the case has been exaggerated, and is extreme in some way. I totally disagree. I think that the case made by Members of Parliament, local authority representatives and the force has been measured. The authority and the force want to be able to respond to changes in population demands, and they want to devise a plan for dealing with serious organised crime, which does exist in Lincolnshire, despite the bucolic image often painted of our county—and indeed, it is a splendid place to live. They want to develop policing to meet current needs and dynamic demands. They deserve the chance to be able to do so.

Of course I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) that we must accept the order. I want the police force in Lincolnshire to be able to implement its plans to do its best for Lincolnshire people. Is that unreasonable? I think not.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), who is an articulate and tireless campaigner on behalf of his constituents. He was absolutely right to highlight the real concern felt when the police authority put forward its initial precept. Both our constituencies have a significant number of hard-working but low-waged people who find things difficult, particularly given the current economic contraction, rising fuel and food prices, and the fact that they have little public transport and little alternative to using their cars to get to work and go about their daily business. A rise of nearly 80 per cent. in the police precept therefore presented a significant challenge to their personal and family finances. That is one reason why I will not vote against this capping order.

I was delighted that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), who is a distinguished and eloquent former police Minister, made a forensic analysis of the issues. He was absolutely right that the lack of flexibility in the funding formula is to blame for Lincolnshire police authority’s current problems. I will return to that point later.

I shall not say too much about the contribution of the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who is a constituent of mine, except that it was disappointing. I found it slightly offensive that there was a direct implication that Conservative Members representing Lincolnshire constituencies do not represent their constituents to the best of their ability. We were concerned about the proposed rate of the police precept, and he is absolutely wrong to suggest that we acquiesced in it. I am pleased that the Minister has introduced the order.

I wish to take this opportunity to thank the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing, who has been courteous throughout the process. He has at least listened to the concerns of Lincolnshire MPs of all parties. I follow my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings in requesting that he examine some specific issues prior to future funding reviews.

The Minister for Local Government introduced the order in a typically calm and considered way, but I am afraid that he cannot get away with implicitly passing the blame on to the police authority. The reason for its problems is insufficient resources from central Government. The point has already been made, but it is worth re-emphasising that Lincolnshire police authority is the lowest-funded force per head of population in the whole country. The next lowest, Suffolk, gets £11 million more. It is recognised and acknowledged that the problem is with the funding formula. It is inflexible and unresponsive to Lincolnshire’s population, geography, rurality and sparsity. As I said in my intervention on my hon. Friend, the £3.4 million grant last year was made in recognition of the fact that the authority has funding problems. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham rightly pointed out the deficit.

Of course it is right that police funding is not awarded on a per capita basis, and there are complexities and differences between urban areas and rural ones such as Lincolnshire. However, the disparity in the numbers is stark. The West Midlands police authority gets £189.78 per head, Greater Manchester £189.54, Northumbria £188.62, and South Yorkshire, the Minister’s own police authority, £162.74. Lincolnshire gets only £112.29 per head. I shall say more in a moment about the significant increase in population.

There has been underfunding for a number of years. I accept that it is not a new phenomenon. There are no more police officers in Lincolnshire than 10 years ago, and there are fewer officers per capita than in any other force in the country. Its limited resources have to be applied over the third largest police authority area in the whole country.

My right hon. and learned Friend made a pertinent point. Had the Minister not allowed a significant precept, 25 per cent. of the police officers in the Lincolnshire police authority might have had to be made redundant. As I said in an intervention, that confirms that the funding formula is not working for Lincolnshire. Such redundancies are not legal, and the authority’s only alternative would have been to make 364 civilian staff redundant and withdraw police officers from the front line to do that civilian work at additional cost to the police authority.

If there is one consistent theme articulated by my constituents in Boston and Skegness, it is that they want a more visible police force, and I believe that that is true elsewhere in Lincolnshire. If the precept had not been allowed at 26 per cent., we would be moving in completely the wrong direction.

The argument that the Minister for Local Government seemed to make—and a small part of it may be true—was that Lincolnshire police authority must be more efficient. That has been looked into by PricewaterhouseCoopers and academics at Loughborough university. The Minister will be aware that the police authority has made year-on-year efficiency savings, rightly demanded by the Home Office, to the tune of £12.3 million over the past nine years. Because of the overall funding problems, the police authority has not been able to use those savings to improve the provision of services, as it has had to use them to bridge the deficit.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Lincolnshire force produced an economic recovery plan, which was submitted to the Home Office which, as far as I know, has not suggested that its proposals for efficiency savings were seriously defective?

My right hon. and learned Friend makes a fundamental point, and he is right. The issue goes even further, because Loughborough university, which looked at Lincolnshire police authority in relation to other police authorities, said not only that it was a highly efficient authority, but that it might well be the most efficient police authority in England and Wales. The point that he made about the report that went to the Home Office confirms the view that, contrary to what the Minister said, Lincolnshire is already an efficient authority, and the increase in the precept has nothing to do with inefficiency, but much more to do with the chief constable and the police authority wanting to increase the provision of services for people who live in Lincolnshire.

May I say a few words about the significant increase in population in Lincolnshire, particularly in Boston in my constituency? The Minister will be aware of the contribution made by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government before the Communities and Local Government Committee, in which she confirmed that even Government figures, which tend to lag behind the reality on the ground, showed that one in four people in the borough of Boston were economic migrants—primarily from eastern Europe, but there is also a significant population from Portugal. Indeed, in one primary school in the centre of Boston, nearly 40 per cent. of pupils speak English as a second language. The population of Boston has risen dramatically: according to the 2001 census, the borough then had a population of 55,000; in 2006, according to the Office for National Statistics, the population was nearly 59,000. Boston borough council, however, estimates that it could really be as high as 70,000—nearly 25,000 more than the figure in the official 2001 census. That is not reflected in the funding formula at all.

The migrants working in the borough of Boston are welcome, as long as they are here legally and legitimately to participate in the essential functioning of the agricultural sector. However, Ministers will be aware that there have been tensions in Boston, which culminated in terrible riots in 2004. There are additional burdens, financial and otherwise, on the police authority. It is calculated that in that population of 60,000 to 70,000, some 65 languages are spoken, creating immense challenges for the police authority, which has had to produce documents in Portuguese, Russian, Polish and other languages to try to communicate with the new communities that have arrived. There is a strong case for giving population growth in Lincolnshire greater consideration in the allocation of funding. I know that the Home Office has been lobbied, but that does not seem to have had any material impact, so I very much hope that Ministers will take on board what I have said when they consider these matters in future.

Finally, I want to look at the impact on policing in Lincolnshire and what the police authority will not be able to deliver that it wants to deliver because of the lack of Government funding. There will be insufficient resources to address serious crime, a good example of which is the famous Stirland case, which involved a double murder between Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire. There will continue to be serious failings in the management of sex offenders and rape. Only today, assistant commissioner John Yates called for every force to have its own rape protection unit; Lincolnshire will face serious challenges and problems in fulfilling that important task. There could be high-risk failures in Lincolnshire police authority’s approach to special branch and intelligence work. Lincolnshire will have 100 fewer police officers than other, similar authorities. It might well be unable to meet the criteria required for the management of dangerous offenders, including sex offenders and violent offenders.

The chief constable and the authority wanted to implement a whole series of additional services, but they will no longer be able to. I shall not give all the details, because I am sure that the Minister is aware of them, but they include plans to use 19 officers to establish a 24-hour rape investigation team, and 63 additional officers in neighbourhood policing. Those plans and those officers would have brought about exactly what the people of Lincolnshire want: higher visibility for the police force. The Government must respond to those serious and significant deficiencies. If left unaddressed, they could have a detrimental impact on safety, security and the quality of life for people in my constituency and elsewhere in Lincolnshire.

In conclusion, I should say that the issues have been accepted and acknowledged; the Minister acknowledged them in the House on 27 March. The Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing acknowledged that there was an issue in an interview on BBC Radio Lincolnshire when he was in the county on 26 June. The fact that the Government have allowed a 26 per cent. increase in the precept is recognition in itself that there is a problem; even that extensive increase allows only a standstill service. Without change, Lincolnshire will have the lowest spending per head on policing, with the lowest number of officers per head covering the third largest geographical area in the country. The Government have made it clear that Lincolnshire police authority is not allowed to raise additional funds through council tax, thereby determining that additional resources must come from central Government. Those resources must therefore flow from the Home Office.

I ask the Minister to consider two particular matters. In consultation with the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing and the Lincolnshire police authority, will he consider the necessity for a one-off payment yet again to assist Lincolnshire police authority for this financial year? Secondly, I reinforce the point made by other hon. Members. Will he undertake a fundamental review of the funding formula to ensure a permanent solution to this time-consuming annual exercise, in which the police authority has to lobby the Government for the requisite resources? That could be done simply in the short term through a consideration of the flaws that were going to stop the Lincolnshire police authority from getting up to £8.2 million in the next three years under the comprehensive spending review.

Will my hon. Friend add a third request? He could echo my call for an urgent meeting between Ministers and representatives of the authority and the force. “Urgent” means that it should be before the summer recess, so that the issues can be explored in good time and we do not suffer the problems that we have had this year.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; if Ministers are willing, I will be more than happy to participate in such a meeting. We cannot have this annual event in which the chief constable, his senior officers, the police authority and Lincolnshire Members of Parliament of all political parties are involved in this time-consuming exercise of trying to make sure that the Lincolnshire police authority gets the requisite and appropriate resources. The issue needs to be sorted out once and for all, and that can be done only by reworking the funding formula.

I am pleased to have the support of those on the Conservative Benches in introducing the order, even if they are not going to support it by voting for it this evening.

The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) mentioned the funding settlement. I take him back to what the Association of Chief Police Officers said about the settlement for the police forces around the country:

“The overall settlement is broadly in line with anticipated rises in core costs, and this will help preserve many of the key gains in police officer and police staff numbers made in recent years.”

The hon. Gentleman also raised points about the funding formula for police, as did the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds). As he will know better than many, that was drawn up in conjunction with ACPO and the Association of Police Authorities. It was last reviewed in 2007 and fully consulted on after that to produce the basis on which we have made decisions for the next three years. One of the factors taken into account in arriving at the funding formula is population sparsity in the area concerned. In addition, Lincolnshire is benefiting from the former rural policing fund, which is still distributed to police authorities on the same basis, but now with no strings attached. This year, the contribution from that fund is part of an extra £10.7 million going to Lincolnshire police on top of the general police grant and the revenue that it raises from its council tax precepts.

We have to base calculations for the funding formula on figures that are consistent across the country, and on the most recent figures produced by the independent Office for National Statistics. Those have weaknesses, particularly as populations across the country become larger, more mixed and more mobile, and it is clear that we have to improve our data and the evidence on which we base funding formulae. That work is ongoing. It is being led by the national statistician, has the strong involvement of the Local Government Association, and reports to and is supported by a group of Ministers jointly chaired by my right hon. Friend the policing Minister and myself. Let me say to the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness that ACPO indicated in a recent report that there has been no crime wave associated with migration into this country. The hon. Gentleman did not argue that point, nor to my knowledge has his police authority, although others have. Nevertheless, we have now created in Government a fund to assist local authorities, including police authorities, in meeting the transitional costs caused by migration pressures such as those that he mentioned.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who is not in his place, made a series of wider points. As always, my right hon. Friend the policing Minister listened carefully to those, as well as to his special early plea on behalf of his own Leicestershire police authority. The hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) asked whether my right hon. Friend the Minister will meet his police authority as a matter of urgency to discuss the way ahead. He will, and I am sure that that meeting can be fixed without delay.

My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) was right about the need for financial disciplines in all parts of government, particularly in relation to fall-back powers to be used in extreme cases, as in the situation that we face with Lincolnshire police authority. He has clearly followed closely the decisions that the police authority has taken on its precept and its budget, and he is right to be critical of those. He was sharp in his critique of the vague Conservative position in relation not only to this order but to the wider issue of local government funding, and to wider policy on local government as a whole.

In response to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), I must explain that there is a cost to rebilling, as the police authority knew when it took its decision to set a 29 per cent. increase in its budget for this year and a 79 per cent. increase in its council tax precept. He claimed that the action in the capping order was disproportionate. Given that it results in every band D council tax payer in Lincolnshire having their council tax bill cut by £69 this year, it is not a disproportionate move but a necessary one. People in Lincolnshire will be astonished that the hon. Gentleman intends to lead the Liberal Democrats into the Lobby tonight to vote, in effect, for a £70 increase on council tax bills for this year.

I shall not give way; I am going to conclude on this point.

On the contrary—and this is my final word—people in Lincolnshire will take the view of the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham, who said that his constituents would be relieved that I am introducing this capping order. They will be relieved that we have debated the order, and I hope that the House will give it the go-ahead, so that we can put measures in place to protect council tax payers in Lincolnshire from an excessive council tax rise as a result of the police authority’s decision. We will do so having listened carefully to the case that it has made, and having set the cap at a level that allows it to live within its means and to avoid any reduction in police officer numbers. The police will be able to carry out their duties, as a good police service should.

Question put:—

Resolved,

That the draft Council Tax Limitation (Maximum Amounts) (England) Order 2008, which was laid before this House on 26th June, be approved.